Extending Invitations to the RISD Museum

an interview with Bo-Won Keum MFA 17 Graphic Design and Maia Chao MFA 17 Glass

Maia Chao and I met as tutors working in the RISD Writing Center in 2014 and have since kept in touch throughout our studies at RISD—I, in Graphic Design; she in Glass. In November 2016 Maia and her collaborator, Josephine Devanbu (Brown-RISD Dual Degree 2015), conducted a study called “Look at Art, Get Paid,” which compensated community members to visit the RISD Museum and share observations on their experience. Having also worked with the RISD Museum on an “Intermission” event that questioned how its European gallery is curated, I was excited to see how our mutual interests in institutional engagement, conditioned spaces, and performances of procedure could play out in a conversation about her project. We talked in her Fletcher Building studio this spring about the project, about institutional critique, and about juggling between being an artist and researcher.—Bo-Won Keum

Bo-Won: Let’s start with a brief summary. What is “Look at Art, Get Paid”?

Maia: “Look at Art, Get Paid” pays people who have never gone or seldom go to art museums to visit the RISD Museum, look at art, and serve as guest critics as they share their thoughts on the museum as an institution and on what they saw in the collections. They’re paid $15 per hour for five hours of work. That work includes pre-visit interviews, a post-visit interview, their time in the galleries, and group discussion.

We advertised in the RIPTA buses for about a month, then welcomed 41 participants to the Museum over five days. This happened in November of 2016, pretty close to the election, and that was a really interesting context. The project felt both urgent and really difficult to do in that time.

Bo-Won: Would you talk more about that urgency and the project’s relevance to the election?

Maia: The election created a crisis among some artists and designers, who were asking about art’s role in this climate, what led to the climate in the first place, and generally sensing a wake up call in a lot of ways. It felt like a time of paralysis and certainly shock for us when Trump won but it also felt really helpful to launch into this program where we were directly asking challenging questions about engaging a public and talking about the value of art with people who didn’t necessarily identify as art lovers or artists themselves. It felt like a real conversation addressing our role in society and the role of art that wasn’t just a bunch of artists in a loop of anxious introspection.

Bo-Won: What was the original motivation for starting the project?

Maia: My collaborator in the project, Josephine Devanbu, and I met in 2015 in a furniture-making class and found we had common interests. Initially, we were thinking about what we could do to exercise our bureaucratic fluency and access to institutional funds to disrupt economic flows—or maybe reverse them for just a moment! We wanted to collect project funding that would usually circulate within RISD—from RISD to RISD students and back to a RISD community of viewers—and put it directly in the hands of the public, specifically people who haven’t necessarily been served by this institution. That gesture was a big motivation. We asked ourselves: What can we do with our access to this money—to this private money—to create an exchange that is upfront about compensating people for their time, their presence, their energy, and labor, rather than some kind of symbolic engagement with the public or paying people “with our art.”

Interrogating the space of the RISD Museum was important to us as RISD students who have experienced a very specific bubble of Providence and as artists who may show work in galleries and museums in the future.

Bo-Won: You’re raising interesting points about the kinds of audiences that we as students see ourselves engaging with or making work for and about the RISD Museum as a public or private institution. Would you say that your project was a critique—and “critique” might be a too strong of a word—of the Museum’s public face or how it sees itself serving various audiences?

Maia: Yes, but it’s hard to separate the ideas we came in with from where I am now, because so many critiques came up in the process that were initially just hunches—about how many people haven’t been here, what it’s like for people who haven’t been here before, how museums read on the outside and on the inside. But we were always interested in this discourse of the Museum being “open to the public,” and the notion that “free days” lift the economic barrier—when, actually, museum studies have shown they don’t necessarily change the demographic of who’s coming; they just make people who are already coming come again. So we were interested in the tension between what the institution says, what actually happens, and how that gap is or isn’t addressed.

Bo-Won: Yeah, absolutely. So tell me what you discovered through the perspectives of your 41 visitors.

Maia: First, that the museum experience really starts far before you enter the building—and how much of that is left to chance and how much it can affect the experience. First, you encounter an invitation to visit in your daily life, whether in a bus advertisement or a personalized card received in the mail. There’s crossing the canal if you’re coming from the West Side. There’s that courtyard area if you’re entering on North Main. And then once you arrive, there’s the lobby, where there are lots of cues pointing toward various exhibitions. Other variables could be what mood the person at the info desk is in, how crowded the lobby is, and so on, and all of these things could really affect how someone then enters the galleries, how quickly they move through, and whether they feel welcomed and like they belong. There’s all this passing of tacit boundaries that has to take place.

We spoke with the participants on the phone for 30 minutes before they arrived to get a sense of their backgrounds. We then greeted them there with food and a gathering that was explicitly made for them, and then had this orientation where we talked about what we were going to do, what this study was, and also about what the rules of visiting this institution were—things you might not know about if you just walk in and are maybe intimidated or don’t know what to ask. We wanted to welcome them as RISD would any paid guest critic—with personal correspondence, food and conversation, and a respect for their time and needs. Several participants voiced appreciation for this, saying it made them feel less anonymous in the impersonal space of the institution.

Bo-Won: Let’s talk more about knowing the rules or protocols of museums. Did the participants bring this up themselves? What did they know already? What did they discover in the process?

Maia: People had a surprising a range of prior experience and understanding before coming. Some had been to museums but didn’t consider themselves regular visitors or went once on a field trip. Some had never been to a museum at all, and some were relatively familiar with museum conventions. We had received over 200 inquiries from the bus ad, and narrowed our group of 41 based on certain priorities. We gave preference to people of color, people of lower socioeconomic status, and people who had never been to an art museum. We were careful not to make assumptions about what people knew and to tell them about both what you can’t and can do, like sketching in the galleries—with pencils only—or taking photos, or selfies.

One topic that came up a lot in feedback was touch—“Can you touch the display case?” “Can you touch the object?” Someone asked why you can’t touch things and another participant responded, saying, “Oh, the oils in your hands and all of that in terms of conservation.” Another person said if you touch a painting maybe you’ll smudge it or something: “Maybe it was wet. It looked wet but I can’t tell.” And the desire for sound, for music, for movement, for a more active sensory experience … people were asking, “Can the clothing be on mannequins that move or something?”—just all these suggestions on how this experience could be more engaging or feel more alive. The silence in the galleries and even the temperature of the rooms also really stuck out to them. They talked about how it felt to be watched by guards and notice the surveillance cameras. All of that awareness is at play constantly, no matter what piece of art you’re looking at.

Bo-Won: That’s so interesting. As museum-goers indoctrinated into the experience early in life, I wonder if we’ve desensitized ourselves to the idea that the museum space is a pure, sterile place. Where does that come from? Why is it that we need to walk through the galleries with bated breath? It’s always so quiet.

Maia: One of the participants also mentioned that visitors aren’t really looking at each other— it’s weird to stand next to someone at a painting and not acknowledge them. Or, someone said, they felt watched when looking at paintings. There were just so many points like that that came up.

Bo-Won: So, here’s a question: Is this your work? Is this research? Is it research for the work? It’s a research project, but at the same time, an artistic intervention, right? Or is this a false dichotomy?

Maia: I think there is a tension—or an art inclination to draw tension—between the research project with a capital R, in terms of science and data and evidence, and the art project, which tends more to the subjective and ambiguous. Josephine and I definitely came out of both backgrounds, in different ways. We were both involved in the social sciences and data collection—she studied Science and Society at Brown and I studied anthropology. That prior experience and interest in how science produces knowledge, especially truth claims, was a big part of our interest. But the way we went about this project was definitely not the way we were trained. We designed “semi-structured” interviews to keep responses as open as possible because we really didn’t know or want to make that claim of knowing what we would find.

I think for us the artists’ intervention aspect was about prioritizing heterogeneity, unpredictability, and personal engagement. Our method wasn’t necessarily efficient or quantitative, but qualitative and conversational. I mean, it’s sort of absurd to apply the scientific research approach to asking people, “What do you think of art?” “What role does art play in your life?”

We were really interested in the specificity of each person’s experience. Our relationships with the participants was huge. We spoke for a half hour before each person came to the museum. That was super important in terms of us getting to know them, them getting to know us, sharing what we were interested in. We wanted to be collaborative—not claiming that we were going to do this project and change things; instead saying we were going to ask this, invite you here, see what you think about it, and take account of your impressions and feedback. And now that we’ve realized the program we’re interested in finding other ways to make it more collaborative.

Bo-Won: You were very honest with them.

Maia: Yes. We told them that we were artists, that we went to the school, that we may work at museums in the future or show at museums, but that we weren’t RISD Museum staff. And we said, “We’re paying you because we really want honest feedback, because we value your time, and because being honest is really hard! So we’re going to pay you and put the value of that honesty front and center.”

Bo-Won: Isn’t that exactly why we pay our studio external critics to come—for an honest perspective? This makes perfect sense.

Maia: Yeah! And we paid them with an honorarium, the same way the guest critics are paid.

Bo-Won: Taxes this year must have been a nightmare.

Maia: Haha! But this is relevant! We were concerned initially about the potentially paternalistic undertones of the invitation, especially looking at the history of museums in “enlightening the masses.” I mean, there are just so many power dynamics at play. One of our questions was, “Where does this visit register in terms of labor, leisure, and education?” All of those things are wrapped up in this institution of the museum, and in studies about the question of why people don’t go to museums. But actually cost isn’t the primary barrier. Oftentimes, it’s time—time as it’s related to cost, and being able to afford the society we live in. So we wondered: Can paying people for their time make up for the time spent away from family, or how they might otherwise choose to spend their days off?

A lot of people said, “I learned a lot, so this registered for me as education,” when we had wanted to distance ourselves from being any kind of educators. But a lot of people also said, “I guess it’s related to labor and money in that I wouldn’t have come if you hadn’t paid me $75.” And the amount! People said, “$45? Meh. $75? Yeah.” So we saw the threshold of where it became worthwhile and how we make those calculations.

Bo-Won: I know you prepared for a year and a half before you launched the project. Can you tell me about that process?

Maia: The first step was talking with the Museum to even see if we could do it. That took a long time, and we had to negotiate giving cash compensation as opposed to gift certificates or a year-long pass to the Museum or even giving participants an art piece made by a RISD student, for example. For us, all of that really played into these assumptions of art and who are we to say what is valuable. We cannot assume that what is symbolically valuable to us registers in someone else’s frame.

Bo-Won: Absolutely—that’s just another dictation of value.

Maia: Exactly. It had to be cash. We wanted to have as few strings attached as possible. Also, our goal was not to convert people, to make them love art or museums. To even assume that we’re capable of changing people’s habits or that their habits even should change … I mean, maybe museums don’t offer much to some people. If people chose not to come back, that would be an informed decision that we’re interested in learning more about, rather than something we want to combat. The participants don’t need to change their ways. If anything, the institution needs to change its ways.

Bo-Won: What was next, after you got the Museum’s permission?

Maia: Then we had to find funding. Fine Arts, Liberal Arts, Graduate Studies, and the RISD Museum each committed funding, and RISD Research was our home base and primary funder. It was important to us that the capital come from RISD—that they make that hard investment. Once we got funding, we applied for Institutional Review Board approval through Brown. IRB is a board that all research studies involving human subjects must go through to ensure the safety and protection of the subjects. It took about two months to write our protocol, our methodology, the interview questions, and the surveys—all of that so that the board could ensure the subjects’ safety and our data security.

Bo-Won: Why was getting IRB approval important to you?

Maia: We could have just called this an art project instead of research and avoided it. But we wanted to see what the rigorous process of defining a research project would be like as artists. And we wanted to see what the conversation would be like in terms of defining our research as an art project, or vice versa. It was interesting to ask the board, “Do you think this is research?” in relation to standard research criteria like generalizability—the assumption that the resulting knowledge can be generalized beyond the study population and contribute to the field.

Bo-Won: That’s interesting because earlier you said you were resisting making claims.

Maia: Yes, we had that goal, but we also recognized that research has currency. In this project about value, we were also looking at the systems that are valued in society. It was a real negotiation—both mobilizing a credible and fundable research project and testing the societal idea that science is rigorous, that scientists are trustworthy, whereas art or artists are “all over the place.” We’re still contemplating where we want to go with this, whether we can say, “We’ve been operating under IRB protocol, but now we’re going to break from that and be artists.”

Bo-Won: So where does this project stand right now? And here’s a question I’ve been asking a lot of artist and designers who’ve been working with and getting funded by institutions to generate work that doesn’t represent the institution: What’s the difference between the client (or sponsor) and the audience to you?

Maia: I think we’re anticipating that this project could go in many different directions, and it probably will. Right now we’re thinking about our responsibility as RISD community members. The fact that we’re able to sit down and have a conversation with the Education Department, with Sarah Ganz Blythe and Deborah Clemons, and say, “Here’s the feedback” is a huge thing. We have a direct line of communication with them and it’s important we use that access. The audience in that sense is definitely the institution. We’re editing down the footage and recordings from our interviews now, and we’re going to present to the larger Museum staff. We want to, as much as possible, use the original words and voices of the participants rather than paraphrasing or analyzing the results. That’s important to us because it gets to the politics of working with the Museum, where we aren’t making claims to being experts. It’s really about communicating to the Museum that we’re there to ask the questions, not to answer them.

So the institution is an important audience, but we’re also really curious about continuing relationships with the participants beyond the study. We finished the project and then were like, “I want to talk to that person again!” Research doesn’t always account for the friendships that might form—not between researcher and subject, but between two people. Where are the bounds of the study? We’re acknowledging the human connections that were made and want to un-encumber them from the protocol of objectivity. We’re going to talk to the IRB about the parameters. Some participants offered to talk more, expressed that they’d love to further the study, spread the word, help problem-solve.

Bo-Won: Did they? That’s great!

Maia: It is! There’s a lot of potential for this community, which formed very briefly and then dispersed. People spoke as experts in their own lived experiences. That was the really exciting part—seeing how people, when asked, took ownership of their experience at the Museum. Whether positive or negative, it was inherently valid. In just one-hour discussions we were talking about structural inequality and the disconnect between the racial and cultural content of the Museum’s collections and the demographic reality of the area. And ideas for solutions were abundant, from policy reform to advertising locations to the way that the labels of artworks are written. Critical conversations are right beneath the surface. It’s just that the invitation needs to be made, and then the questions need to be asked—to people who aren’t already sitting at the table.